Q&A: Can a Church’s “Irrevocable” Promise Become Revocable?

Why a church may have to honor a valuable commitment to a retired pastor.

When I retired as pastor, the church board took “irrevocable” action to provide full health coverage for my wife and me as long as we were alive. Recently I received a call from the current pastor stating that the board wants to cancel the health insurance benefits to my wife and me. The pastor stated that they are taking action because “they can change anything from past action.” Can an “irrevocable” commitment be changed?
It is a well-established legal principle that a unilateral promise (i.e., a church board’s irrevocable promise to pay a pastor’s health insurance for life) is revocable. However, it is also well-established that unilateral promises can become irrevocable if they are supported by some form of “consideration.”
Consideration is a legal concept that means something of value. To illustrate, X’s promise to provide a benefit to Y is unenforceable because X receives nothing of value (consideration) for his promise. X’s promise can become enforceable if he receives something of value from Y. Ordinarily this would be money or services. But, the courts also recognize some “exceptions” to the consideration requirement, which include “detrimental reliance.” That is, if X makes a unilateral promise to Y, and receives no consideration for it, that promise can become enforceable if Y relies to his detriment upon X’s promise.
In your case, it could be argued that your decision to forego salary increases was based on the church board’s irrevocable promise to provide health care coverage. Your detrimental reliance on the board’s promise could make that promise enforceable, even though the board received no consideration from you. Obviously, a definitive legal opinion in such cases depends on a full knowledge of all the surrounding facts and circumstances. Only an attorney apprised of all the facts would be able to provide a legal opinion.
Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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